Michel Faber and Why an Artist’s Retirement is an Act of Beauty

Michel Faber lead

by Gabriel Valdez

Movie and theater critic JP Hitesman gave me some unexpected news last week. Michel Faber, author of Under the Skin and The Crimson Petal and the White, will stop writing after the release of his upcoming novel The Book of Strange New Things.

Faber’s one of my favorite authors. I even had the opportunity to interview him earlier this year about the movie adaptation of Under the Skin. It was an impromptu correspondence interview, so we didn’t get the chance to meet, but his eloquent and well-described answers showed an author who was tremendously open to his work being challenged and reinterpreted by critics and other artists.

I sought out some articles about Faber’s oncoming retirement from novel writing. This New York Times feature is the most complete. Most agreed it was a reaction to the passing of his wife Eva from cancer, and hoped it’s just a phase that will pass. To me, that seems disrespectful of Faber and his late wife. I understand our impulse to want more from the artists we love and be disappointed when we don’t get it, but that completely misses the beauty of the moment.

An author always has a story in him, and that story belongs to him so long as he directs its course. Once he gives it over to the public, however, it ceases to be his. It belongs to readers and critics and theorists who will love it and hate it and pick it apart at the seams. That’s what gives us our best work. It’s not simply because of how good a writer is; a hundred thousand good writers have been lost to time.

What gives a work its brilliance and defines its meaning over time are readers themselves. Every story takes place a million different ways in a million different imaginations and carries a million unique interpretations. That story is not the author’s any more, it’s ours.

Sometimes an author has to keep that story in him. He needs that story to stay his own. He needs there to be one version, not a million. I imagine that might be how Faber feels, and if you’ve been through loss, you’ll understand why.

When I speak of ownership, I don’t speak of legal possession, but rather the possession of ideas: An audience can own a novel or a film or a painting forever because those can stand the test of time. Audiences change, and so that story of ownership changes and interpretations of art evolve, but that audience cannot own a creator. They are fleeting. They are the single element in any piece of art that we can never make our own.

Yet a creator can never own his art. It’s always given to an audience. He can’t own the meaning, he can’t own the interpretation, he can’t own how it will be understood in the future.

It’s beautiful when artists keep on giving until the day they die, but there’s a sadness to that, too. Conversely, it’s sad when an artist stops giving when he could still create, but there’s also a beauty in this. Faber deserves a chance to own his own stories. Everyone does, why should artists be any different?

To be as true an artist as you can is to give everything inside yourself to others, day after day, yet feel like it’s not enough. Every act of artistic creation is also an act of terrific loss. So long as that’s a positive motivation, and the well you’re pumping dry every day is being filled back up, art is a passion. It’s the rarest combination of vulnerability and invincibility.

When that motivation dwindles, for whatever reason, we shouldn’t be sad or angry that an artist has stopped creating. We shouldn’t make demands or insistently issue hopes. We should be joyous we got to enjoy what they’ve already made. Never be upset at a gift that’s been given simply because you wanted more of it.

Yes, there’s an element of sadness to Faber ceasing to write novels, and we shouldn’t deny that feeling. It just shouldn’t override the moment, because there’s also beauty to be found in it.

Don’t just imagine what else Faber, or any artist who moves on, could have given us. Imagine what he keeps. There’s awe in that. It’s an act of creation in itself. Let Faber create a story he wants to keep for himself, and don’t wonder at what it is. Admire that, for once, he gets to keep it.

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